Can Art Change the World? With Song, Dance and Cowboy Clichés Two Shows Offer Different Answers

Can Art Change the World? With Song, Dance and Cowboy Clichés Two Shows Offer Different Answers

The science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler set her 1993 novel, “Parable of the Sower,” in the year 2024. It wasn’t very far away then; it’s a lot closer now. Maybe Butler had a side line in soothsaying, because the book imagines a society debilitated by authoritarian leadership, income inequality and environmental collapse. Where’s the fiction part again?

Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s concert version, titled “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” is an unrepentantly political work of theater. Poignant and cautionary, this blues, gospel and funk-inflected work argues that if we want to avoid this future we’ll need diversity, strength and a song or two. (Happily, the Reagons have written some splendid ones.)

If “Parable” insists on the power of art to create change, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s punchy “Pursuit of Happiness” doubts that art can do anything. It is the definitive statement — if any were needed — that bringing interpretive dance to a battlefield is a really bad idea. (I saw both at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival; “Parable of the Sower” next heads to Fairfield, Conn., while “Pursuit of Happiness” tours internationally.)

“Parable of the Sower,” directed by Eric Ting, was first seen in a concert version at the Public in 2015, and is still discovering how it wants to tell its story — how much movement and how much mood, how much action and how much description. (The festival was reluctant to open it for review.)

It shouldn’t need a plot synopsis in the program, but it does. Ms. Reagon, a captivating, black-clad narrator, presides center stage, backed by a five-piece band and flanked by the knockout singers Helga Davis and Carla Duren, both outfitted in Afrofuturist glam.

From left: Tsilala Brock, Tomas Cruz and Shayna Small in the stage adaptation of “Parable of the Sower.”CreditWaleed Shah/The Arts Center NYU

As the show begins, Lauren Oya Olamina (a big-voiced Shayna Small) is a 15-year-old African-American girl who lives in a walled compound just outside of Los Angeles. Her father is a Baptist preacher, but Lauren has developed her own understanding of god, an esoteric theology rooted in Buddhism and Taoism. Briefly: “God is change.” She has also begun to question whether her community can survive.

The stronger first act plays out during a church service at which Lauren attempts to voice her concerns. The parishioners sing a few bars of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Lauren’s mordant response: “We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces.”

Ms. Reagon leans into the microphone to say that she never liked that part of the book. But she and her mother have movement on their minds. They want to prod us, prompt us, push us out onto the sidewalk ready to take action. Less a straightforward adaptation than a passionate dialogue with the novel, this “Parable of the Sower” uses its plot to warn against what will happen if we don’t stand up. As Butler said of her novel, “If it’s true, if it’s anywhere near true, we’re all in trouble.”

In the show’s highlight, “Don’t Let Your Baby Go to Olivar,” Ms. Reagon sings about how easily complacency might tip us into a world like the novel’s. And she makes us sing with her. (To my fellow ticketholders: I’m sorry. And nice harmonies!) The song concludes in a chant: “Fight, fight, strategize/ Say it together: Equal rights.” Maybe this sounds corny. Maybe it is. But in that theater, it felt vital, even sacred. If you want to change the world, convincing a few hundred people to voice your call isn’t a bad place to start.

Trailer for “Pursuit of Happiness” CreditVideo by PublicTheaterNY

Where to start with “Pursuit of Happiness,” a spaghetti Western with extra sauce that climaxes in a shaggy dog story so hirsute it will upset pet groomers everywhere.

The set is a minimalist saloon dotted with old-timey signifiers — a bleached skull, a rifle, a couple of wanted posters. Various cowboys and cowgirls with blacked eyes and lousy dentistry mosey up to the bar to drink and fight and discourse on human misery. “I began to feel ashamed of making art. It’s a pastime, totally unnecessary, useless,” one cowpoke wails.

Clownish fights and interpretive dance are part of the irreverent mix in “Pursuit of Happiness.”CreditAndrej Lamut

Freighting everyday conversation with life-or-death importance has always been the style of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a company best-known for its ambitious 10-part project, “Life and Times,” which started with an astounding bang and fizzled to a multimedia whimper.

At first, “Pursuit of Happiness,” created by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, seems like more of the same, with declamatory speech and antic choreography underlying each throwaway line. The six terrific performers are from EnKnapGroup, a Slovenian dance company with a Pan-European core, so a lot of the comedy comes from watching a foreign troupe deconstruct a beloved genre, but it also comes from hearing them mangle American idioms in terrible oater accents. (Supertitles are needed and supplied.) They’re in on the joke, but the joke is also on them, which can feel ugly.

At least until Bence Mezei, dressed in a mariachi suit, steps out from behind the whiskey-soaked bar and begins an outlandish, Burroughs-esque monologue about how he and the troupe decided to bring their unique form of modern dance to an insurgent zone somewhere outside of Baghdad. Drunk on missionary zeal and military grade Red Bull, the dancers re-enact an absurd swing-yer-partner performance that just might bring peace to the Middle East. Or get everyone killed.

The surreal story is weird and gross and dumb. It’s inappropriately sexual and way, way, way too long. It is also hilarious and one of the wildest things you’ll see at the theater this year. “Pursuit of Happiness” won’t change the world. It will change your night.

Parable of the Sower
Through Jan. 15 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, Running time: 2 hours. At the Quick Center for the Arts, Fairfield, CT, Feb. 2-3.

Pursuit of Happiness
Through Jan. 14 at N.Y.U. Skirball, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. At the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris, France, Feb. 14-16.

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